Stephen Michael Briggs

: Social worker

: SW22145

Interim Order: Imposed on 12 Dec 2016

: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing:10:00 08/11/2017 End: 17:00 09/11/2017

: Health and Care Professions Council, 405 Kennington Road, London, SE11 4PT

: Conduct and Competence Committee
: Struck off

Allegation

Allegation (As amended at Final Hearing):

While registered as a Social Worker, and employed by Nottingham City Council as a Child Protection Social Worker:

1. Between on or around 27 December 2014 and on or around 25 February 2015, the Internet Protocol (IP) address which resolves back to your registered name and home address was used on a website and/or forum called “Playpen” used for sharing indecent images of children, and during this time you:

a) logged onto “Playpen” for approximately 13 hours; and/or

b) viewed approximately 46 threads.

2. A number the threads you viewed on ‘Playpen’ contained category A - C indecent images of children.

3. On various hard drives owned by you and kept at your registered home address, you were in possession of:

a) Approximately four deleted folder names associated with child pornography on a Seagate external hard drive (SS/2)

b) Approximately three indecent movies of children embedded within other files on one of the two hard drives in the computer tower (SS/4A)

c) Approximately 107 indecent images of children contained on the pagefile section of one of the two hard drives in the computer tower (SS/4B)  and one of the two hard drives in the Fuijitsu Siemens tower computer (SS/6B)

d) Web page fragments from websites containing child pornography on the pagefile section of the computer tower (SS4B) and one of the two hard drives in the Fuijitsu Siemens tower computer (SS/6B)

e) Approximately eight file paths which had names indicative of sexual activity that may relate to children on one of the two hard drives in the Fujitsu Siemens tower computer (SS/6B)

4. Between approximately 31 March 2015 and 14 December 2015, while subject to a police investigation, you did not provide the names of persons who may have been responsible for accessing websites and/or forums involving child pornography to:

a) Derbyshire Police and/or

b) Nottingham City Council

5. Your actions described at paragraphs 1, 2, 3 and/or 4 raise safeguarding concerns.

6. The matters set out in paragraphs 1 - 5 constitute misconduct.

7. By reason of your misconduct, your fitness to practise is impaired.

Finding

Preliminary Matters

Service of Notice

1. The Panel heard information that the Notice of today’s hearing was sent to the Registrant by first class post on 4 September 2017. The Panel was satisfied that the Notice of hearing had been properly served in accordance with the HCPC (Conduct and Competence Committee) (Procedure) Rules 2003 (the Rules).

Proceeding in the Registrant’s absence

2. Mr Millin, on behalf of the HCPC, applied for the hearing to proceed in the Registrant’s absence.  He submitted that it was open to the Panel to find that the Registrant had voluntarily waived his right to attend. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor who referred to the HCPTS Practice Note entitled “Proceeding in the Absence of the Registrant” and to the cases of R v Jones [2002] UKHL 5 and GMC v Adeogba [2016] EWCA Civ 162.

3. The Panel took into account written submissions from the Registrant dated 29 October 2017 which states that “I see no point in attending”. It was clear to the Panel that the Registrant has voluntarily waived his right to attend. The Panel also considered an email from the Registrant dated 6 November 2017 which presents submissions for the Panel to consider and does not request an adjournment. The Panel took into account that there is inevitably a disadvantage if  the Registrant does not attend to present his case and that these are serious allegations. However, the Registrant has clearly decided not to attend. Further, there are professional witnesses in attendance today, and there is a public interest in the expeditious disposal of the hearing. The Panel decided that it was in the interests of justice to proceed today.


Background

4. The Registrant is a registered Social Worker. He was employed by Nottingham City Council as a Child Protection Social Worker on 1 February 2011. In his role he had direct contact with children and his role involved assessing whether a child was unsafe and whether child proceedings were necessary.

5. The allegations came to light when the National Crime Agency (NCA) traced the IP address which had accessed a website/ forum used for sharing indecent images of children to the Registrant’s home address. This evidence was provided on 13 March 2015 to the local Constabulary, Derbyshire Police, who obtained a warrant to search the Registrant’s house.  During the search the Registrant’s hard drives were seized and examined, and numerous indecent images and videos (and traces of the same) were recovered. The Registrant was arrested on 31 March 2015 and interviewed by the police on two occasions. No further action was taken by the CPS on the basis that the evidence would not pass the criminal standard of proof, namely “beyond reasonable doubt”, because the hard drives were second hand and that there was a reasonable doubt as to whether the evidence could be traced back to the Registrant. The HCPC brings this case on the basis that the lower standard of proof, namely the civil standard of “the balance of probabilities” is applicable in the HCPC proceedings.

Decision on Facts

6. The Panel was aware that the burden of proof is entirely on the HCPC to prove the Allegation. The standard of proof is the civil standard, namely the balance of probabilities.

7. The Panel heard live evidence from two witnesses for the HCPC:

i. AW, Investigating Officer at Nottingham City Council
ii.DW, Detective Constable at what was then known as the Hi-Tech Crime Unit of Derbyshire Constabulary.  He analysed the hard drives and gives expert evidence. He is the author of an “Examination Report” about hard drives recovered from the Registrant’s home.

Application to admit hearsay evidence

8. Following the evidence of the live witnesses, and at the instigation of the Panel, Mr Millin applied for the statements of the remaining witnesses to be read. These witnesses were:
 
i. AR, NCA Officer who was involved in the nationwide operation
ii.PC, Detective Sergeant at Derbyshire Constabulary who line managed the police investigation.

9. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor who referred to the cases of NMC v Ogbonna [2010] EWCA Civ 1216, Thorneycroft v NMC [2014] EWHC 1565 and Bonhoeffer v GMC [2011] EWHC 1585.

10. The Panel took into account that these are serious allegations against the Registrant. After careful consideration, the Panel decided to admit the witness statements of both witnesses as hearsay evidence for the following reasons:

i. The Registrant has not objected in any way to these witness statements, and he has not challenged the findings of the NCA as presented in the witness statement of AR, or the witness statement of DW, although he in general maintains his innocence. 

ii. PC is not the sole and decisive evidence of any of the particulars of the allegations.

iii. In carefully considering the matter it is apparent to the Panel that AR is the main witness to particulars 1 and 2 of the allegations. The report which he exhibits is based on technical evidence, namely that the website in question, “Playpen” was traced to the Registrant’s IP address which was his home address and that the IP accessed material from that website. This is not challenged by the Registrant in the sense that he does not deny that his IP address was linked to the website. He denies that he himself accessed that material. The Panel notes that there is corroborative evidence from DW, from who it has heard, that it was likely to be the Registrant who accessed this material.  The corroboration of AR’s evidence by DW was a persuasive factor in its decision to admit the witness statement of AR as hearsay.

iv. The Panel, having heard the very detailed live evidence of the two HCPC witnesses could identify no questions it wished to ask of the remaining two witnesses which were the subject of the application. 

v. Both are professional witnesses carrying out professional investigations and the Panel could find no indication that they had a reason to fabricate their evidence.

vi. They are available to give evidence and are not reluctant witnesses in any way.

11. The Panel was of the view that AW and DW gave detailed, considered and helpful evidence. Both were balanced and objective.
 
12. The Panel carefully considered the responses made by the Registrant when interviewed by AW on 19 November 2015, and when interviewed by the police on 31 March 2015 and 23 July 2015.  The Panel also too into account his written submissions provided for the purposes of the HCPC proceedings, dated 29 October 2017 as well as his email of 6 November 2017. The Registrant maintains his innocence. He states that others had access to his computers, he purchased his computer hard drives second hand, and that he had obtained his computer from a friend who had built the computer. When asked by AW and the police to give the name of his friend or others who may have accessed his computers, the Registrant refused to cooperate.

Particular 1 (the stem)

13. The Panel finds this proved.

14. In this regard, the Panel accepted the evidence of AR, including the report exhibited by his witness statement which makes clear that the IP address which resolves to the Registrant’s registered name and home address was used to access a website called PlayPen which hosts forums for sharing indecent images of children.

15. The Panel noted that the Registrant does not dispute this.

Particulars 1 (a) and 1(b)


16. The Panel finds these particulars proved.

17. In respect of Particular 1(a) the Panel accepted para. 8 of AR’s report which makes clear that the Registrant’s IP address was associated with the logging in to “PlayPen” for 13 hours, 45 minutes and 23 seconds.

18. In respect of Particular 1(b) the Panel accepted para. 9 of AR’s report that the user viewed 46 threads/ conversations.

19. In coming to the conclusion that, on the balance of probabilities, it was the Registrant who logged into the website/ forum and  who viewed the 46 threads, the Panel took into account the corroborative evidence of DW who, in his own report has demonstrated that a large amount of other material associated with indecent images of children was found on the Registrant’s hard drives, which are the subject of Particulars 3(a)-(e).

20. In this regard the Panel also accepted DW’s evidence that the fact that all those hard drives, including on two different computers were found to contain such material makes it unlikely that it was not the Registrant who knowingly possessed the material. Further, in coming to its finding, the Panel has taken into account the Registrant’s refusal to name his friend who he states supplied him with one of the computers.   The Panel infers from the information before it that it was the Registrant himself rather than another who accessed this material.

Particular 2

21. The Panel found this proved.

22. It accepted para. 8 of AR’s report which states the activity for the PlayPen user account accessed from the Registrant’s IP address shows that some of the 46 threads viewed on PlayPen contained category A-C indecent images of children.

23. The Panel was satisfied that it was the Registrant who viewed these threads, and refers to the reasoning set out in para. 20 above.

Particular 3 (stem)

24. The Panel found this proved on the basis of the evidence of DW’s evidence who analysed the hard drives which were recovered from your home to which the IP address in question was registered.

Particular 3(a)

25. The Panel found this proved.

26. The Panel accepted para. 9 of DW’s witness statement which refers to the “four entries of relevance” on the Seagate hard drive SS/2. This is demonstrated in more detail page 5 of DW’s report.

27. The Panel also found that the Registrant knowingly had possession of this material for the reasons set out in para. 20 of this determination.

Particular 3(b)

28. The Panel found this proved.

29. The Panel accepted para.10 of DW’s witness statement in respect of hard drive SS/4A). The Panel accepted the oral evidence that there is no evidence that the Registrant had knowledge that they were present on his hard drive.

Particular 3(c)

30. The Panel found this proved.

31. The Panel took into account paras. 15 – 18 of DW’s witness statement as well as pages 11, 15 and 25 of DW’s report. The Panel has only been able to calculate a total of 89 indecent images referred to in the evidence, but finds this particular proved on the basis that the particular refers to “approximately 107” and that the underlying mischief of the particular is proved to the requisite standard.

32. The Panel also has taken into account para. 18 of DW’s witness statement which states that it is unlikely that the images were there as a result of the previous owner. His reason is that the recovered bulletin board fragments which were also found in the pagefile (the subject of Particular 3(d)) contain reference to dates which were from a time when the Registrant possessed the hard drive. DW goes on to state that the bulletin boards discuss and suggest content which would be similar to the indecent images recovered. The Panel has considered this, and has concluded that on the balance of probabilities, the images were from activities associated with the bulletin boards. Taking into account its reasoning at para. 20 above, the Panel, therefore finds on the balance of probabilities that the Registrant was knowingly in possession of these indecent images.

Particular 3(d)

33. The Panel found this proved.

34. The Panel accepted paras. 19-21 of DW’s witness statement in this regard as well as pages 25-52 of his report.

35. In coming to the conclusion that the Registrant knowingly possessed this material, the Panel accepted DW’s evidence that the date information from the web pages in question were during the period when the Registrant owned the hard drive. It also bore in mind its reasoning at para. 20 above.

Particular 3(e)

36. The Panel found this proved.

37. The Panel accepted para. 22- 24 of DW’s witness statement and pages 17-23 of his report.

38. In coming to the conclusion that the Registrant knowingly possessed this material, the Panel accepted DW’s evidence at para. 23 of his statement that it can be seen from the data, that the relevant folders were either opened/ closed/ repositioned/ resized within Windows Explorer during times when the Registrant was in possession of the hard drive. It also bore in mind its reasoning at para. 20 above.

Particular 4(a)

39. The Panel found this proved.

40. The Registrant was first interviewed by police on 31 March 2015 and on a second occasion on 23 July 2015 while the investigation continued.

41. According to the oral evidence and witness statement of AW, the Registrant was maintaining that it was either his friend who had built his computer or others who had accessed his computers who were responsible.  DW’s evidence is that he interviewed the Registrant on the second occasion and he asked the Registrant to disclose the names of persons who may have been responsible for accessing websites and/ forums involving child pornography. His evidence was that the Registrant remained silent during the entire interview, and this is borne out by the record of the police interview on 23 July 2015 which was before the Panel.

Particular 4(b)

42. The Panel found this proved.

43. The Panel had regard to the witness statement of AW, her oral evidence, a handwritten record of her interview with the Registrant on 19 November 2015, her disciplinary investigation report and the disciplinary hearing summary dated 14 December 2015. It is clear from this evidence that the Registrant was maintaining that it was one or more people other than him who was responsible. When he was asked by his employer on 19 November and 14 December 2015 to disclose the names of persons who may have been responsible, he refused. The Panel notes that the Registrant does not deny this charge.


Particular 5

44. The Panel found this proved in respect of Particulars 1, 2, 3 and 4 (with the exception of 3(b) due to the lack of the Registrant’s knowledge of the material in that Particular as referred to above).

45. The Panel came to this finding on the basis that as a Child Protection Social Worker the Registrant was responsible for the welfare of vulnerable children and young people. As made clear by AW in her evidence, child pornography is not a victimless crime, but involves the abuse of children which is perpetuated by the viewing or downloading of indecent images of children. Further, the Registrant’s refusal to provide the name of others who may have been involved was contrary to his duties as a Social Worker to protect such children.

Decision on Grounds

46. The Panel considered whether the matters set out in Particulars 1-5 constitute misconduct. It took into account the submissions of Mr Millin who submitted that they did. The Panel also accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor who referred to the case of Roylance v GMC (No. 2) [2000] 1AC 311, Spencer v General Osteopathic Council  [2012] EWHC 3147 and Shaw v General Osteopathic Council  [2015] EWHC 2721. The Panel was aware that whether or not the matters found proved constitute misconduct is a matter for its own independent judgment and that there is burden of proof on either party.

47. The Panel was of the view that the Registrant has breached the following Standards:

HCPC Standards of conduct, performance and ethics: 1,3,13

1 You must act in the best interests of service users

3 You must keep high standards of personal conduct
  
13 You must behave with honesty and integrity and make sure that    your behaviour does not damage the public’s confidence in you or  your profession.

HCPC Standards of proficiency. Social Workers in England:

2.3 understand the need to protect, safeguard and promote the
wellbeing of children, young people and vulnerable adults

2.6 be able to exercise authority as a social worker within the
appropriate legal and ethical frameworks

3.1 understand the need to maintain high standards of personal and professional conduct

7.2 be able to recognise and respond appropriately to situations
where it is necessary to share information to safeguard service
users and carers or others.

48. The Panel was aware that breaches of such standards cannot in themselves lead to a finding of misconduct.

49. With the exception of Particular 3(b) in respect of material which the Panel has found the Registrant did not have any knowledge, the Panel has found that all the Particulars constitute misconduct.

50. The Panel was in no doubt that the accessing, viewing and knowing possession of such material fell far below the standards expected of a Social Worker.  The creation of indecent images of children involves the abuse of children and this abuse is perpetuated by viewing and accessing of such material. The Panel decided that the Registrant’s actions were sufficiently serious to constitute misconduct.

51. The Panel has found that it was the Registrant who accessed and knowingly possessed the material in question rather than another person known to him. However, the Registrant was at the time maintaining that the friend who had built his computer, or indeed others, were responsible. Having maintained this position, the Registrant’s refusal to cooperate with police and his employer in providing the names of another was in contravention of the duty of a social worker to protect children who were the subject of abuse which was perpetuated by the viewing of such material. The Panel found that such conduct fell far below that standards expected of a social worker and were sufficiently serious to constitute misconduct.

52. In terms of particular 5, the Panel is satisfied the allegations found proved which amounted to misconduct within charges 1 – 4 raise serious safeguarding concerns in respect of vulnerable children and as such, the Registrant’s actions and failures would be seen as amounting to serious misconduct. 


Decision on Impairment

53. The Panel heard the submissions of Mr Millin that the Registrant is currently impaired. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor who referred to CHRE v (1) NMC (2) Grant [2011] EWHC 927. The Panel had regard to the HCPTS Practice Note entitled “Finding that Fitness to Practise is “Impaired". It was aware that the decision on current fitness to practise is one for its own independent judgment, and there is no burden of proof on either party.

54. The Panel has taken into account the Registrant’s position as expressed to his employer, the police and the HCPC. The Panel was unable to find any insight shown by him into the damage and risks created by his misconduct. Even while maintaining his innocence, the Registrant has shown no insight into the damage created by the abuse of children in the creation of indecent images. Even when maintaining that he was innocent, he refused to cooperate with his employer and the police as to others who he said were responsible instead of him. The reasons he gave, such as it would be “disproportionate” it would not be “right” and that the other person would deny it, show no insight into the abuse of children associated with child pornography and the need to act to address that abuse. This is compounded by the duties that the Registrant had as a Social Worker to seek to protect vulnerable children in any sphere which he came into contact with.

55. The Panel also is of the view that the Registrant has shown a lack of integrity in seeking to blame others for his actions when questioned by his employer and the police. It is notable that the Registrant was entirely silent at the second police interview. The Panel noted DW’s evidence that in his 28 year career as a police officer he had never conducted an interview in which a suspect was entirely silent. His evidence was that the Registrant stared at the ceiling or behind the interviewing officers and did not engage with them in any way.

56. The Panel also noted the Registrant’s answers when interviewed by AW on 19 November 2017. When told that the HCPC may be concerned that he is withholding information about who may have been responsible, he was asked a direct question by AW: “where do you think duty to safeguard starts and ends (sic)” and he replied “don’t understand”.  In the Disciplinary Hearing Summary dated 14 December 2017 the Registrant agreed that the images are a form of child abuse. However, when asked why he did not want to share information about the others who may be responsible, in accordance with his position that he himself was not, he replied that this would be disproportionate and that it would be “wrong”. He also mentioned that consequences of doing so “could include the possibility that he might not be able to live in his house again”. In the Panel’s view this shows a lack of insight into the need to safeguard children by naming those who may be implicated in abuse, regardless of whether or not the Registrant was telling the truth when he stated that he was not responsible. Further, by referring to the consequences for him, he demonstrated that he was putting his own interests above those of abused children.

57.The Panel took into account the case of Grant and concluded that while there is no evidence that the Registrant caused any harm to service users in his care, the misconduct found in this case meant that by virtue of his interest in indecent images of children, the lengths he went to hide it, and the safeguarding concerns arising from his actions, he put service users at unwarranted risk of harm, brought the profession into disrepute and breached fundamental tenets of the profession. The lack of insight shown by him means, in the Panel’s view, that he is liable to act in these ways in the future. His actions strike at the very heart of what it means to be a Social Worker. 

58. The Panel also took into account the wider public interest and concluded that the need to uphold proper standards of conduct and performance, and the need to maintain public confidence in the profession would be undermined if a finding of impairment were not made.


Decision on Sanction

59. The Panel heard submissions from Mr Millin and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. It took careful account of the HCPTS Sanctions Policy. It also took into account the Registrant’s written submissions made in respect of these proceedings. The Panel was aware that sanction is a matter for its own independent judgment and that the purpose of sanction is to protect the public, uphold proper standards and maintain confidence in the profession.

60. The Panel found the following mitigating factors:

i. There has been some level of engagement by the Registrant with the proceedings, although he has not attended the final hearing.
 
ii. The Panel is not aware that he has had previous matters before his regulator.

iii. In his written submission the Registrant has acknowledged the need to uphold confidence in the profession.


61. The Panel found the following aggravating factors:

i. The Registrant does not accept personal responsibility for his conduct.

ii. He failed to fully cooperate with his employer and the police, perpetuating the risk of abuse to some of the most vulnerable in society.

iii. The misconduct found occurred over a considerable period of time.


62. The Panel noted the section within the Sanctions Policy relating to convictions for child pornography, and while the Registrant was not convicted, it is of the view that the concerns raised by a conviction for such offences are relevant to this case in light of the facts found proved.

63. The nature of the misconduct is in direct contradiction to the Registrant’s duties and responsibilities as a Social Worker. Given the seriousness and nature of the misconduct found, the Panel concluded that a Caution Order would neither protect service users nor would it satisfy the wider public interest.

64. The Panel considered whether a Conditions of Practice Order could be formulated to address the misconduct. The Panel noted that conditions are often useful in addressing identified shortcomings in professional practice. However, the Registrant’s failings demonstrate deep-seated attitudinal concerns and strike at the heart of what it is to be a social worker engaged in Child Protection. The Panel is of the view that conditions could not be formulated to address the misconduct and to satisfy the wider public interest.

65. The Panel next considered a Suspension Order. The Panel noted that suspension may be appropriate where there is a single instance of serious misconduct and where there are no deep-seated attitudinal concerns. This is not the case here. The Panel has clearly identified that the Registrant has failed to acknowledge and take responsibility for his actions. The Panel reminded itself that central to the Registrant’s misconduct is the viewing of a large number of images of children being abused, and failing to disclose the details of others who he said may have been responsible. The Panel concluded that a period of suspension would not satisfy the need to declare proper standards of conduct and behaviour within the social work profession, nor would it uphold public confidence in the profession and the regulator.

66. The Panel concluded that the nature and seriousness of the misconduct, the lack of insight into the damage caused by it, and the ongoing risk of repetition is such that a Striking Off Order is the only sanction which will provide ongoing protection to service users and satisfy the wider public interest. The Panel considered the principle of proportionality and weighed up the Registrant’s interest as well as the public interest.  It concluded that the need to protect the public and the wider public interest outweighed the Registrant’s interests. 

 

Order

ORDER: That the Registrar is directed to strike the name of Mr Stephen Michael Briggs from the Register on the date this order comes into effect. 

Notes

The Panel imposed a Interim Suspension Order for a period of 18 months to cover the appeal period.   

Hearing history

History of Hearings for Stephen Michael Briggs

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
08/11/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Struck off
30/08/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Interim Order Review Interim Suspension
06/06/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Interim Order Review Interim Suspension
12/12/2016 Conduct and Competence Committee Interim Order Application Interim Suspension